Interview with Derek Cianfrance, Director of “The Place Beyond the Pines”
Interview by Matt Sparks.
I recently had the great pleasure of interviewing film director Derek Cianfrance. He visited the Boulder campus as a returning alum in promotion of his latest feature A Place Beyond the Pines (2013) starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, and Eva Mendes. Being a film studies major myself, I had heard a lot of Cianfrance and his work. I had seen his oscar-nominated film Blue Valentine, starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, and was instantly a fan. As soon as I heard I had the opportunity to sit down with Derek for an interview, my stomach filled with a flurry of nervous butterflies!
I attended a press screening in preparation for the interview and fell in love with the film. I cried multiple times and could barely hold still in my seat. Pines focuses on relationships between fathers and sons, masculinity, and lineage. I told Derek about my experience watching the film. He asked which scenes I cried during and I embarrassingly could not recall each scene. Since he was a student in the film studies program at CU we were able to discuss certain classes and professors. Interviewing Derek Cianfrance was inspiring, terrifying, and humbling and I am so thankful I had the opportunity.
A Place Beyond the Pines opens in Boulder at Century Boulder on Friday, April 12 and opens in Denver at the Landmark Mayan on Friday, April 5. Make sure and see the film because it is excellent! We were joined by Sarah Elsea of the CU Independent. This is a condensed transcript of the interview. Portions of the interview with spoilers and plot details were cut.
Matt: I was just wondering, what filmmakers had a big influence you? I remember earlier you mentioned John Cassavetes.
Derek: When I was little I use to sleep under a big picture of Martin Scorcese. And also a Porsche 911 that I slept under, but I have given that dream up. I don’t really dream about that any more. But Scorcese and his films. I use to watch George Romero all the time when I was a kid. Romero found his way into A Place Beyond the Pines in interesting ways. I think I internalized his movies. Pines reminds me of Creep Show (1982) with its vignetted storytelling. Dawn of the Dead (1978) was subversive; on the surface it was a zombie movie but underneath it was a condemnation on consumerism and capitalistic culture. Night of the Living Dead (1968) feels real, like those things are really happening. Pier Paso Pasolini and so many filmmakers. I’ve always loved movies and dreamed of making movies. The movies I’ve been making now are the films that I want to see as a viewer. I make movies for the viewer in me by thinking that I’m not that different from everyone else. I think I have very similar tastes. I like to be challenged, surprised, and I like films that are like friends of mine. I like films that I can go back to at different times of my life and they seem to change. A film like Faces (1968), every time I see that film it’s like a new movie for me. I know the movie isn’t changing and that I’m changing, but I love that these movies are made with an openness that allows the viewer to share in the imagination of the stories and the characters. That is what I have been trying to do: make movies that can be friends for people. Maybe their depressed friends sometimes [laughs], but movies that can be happy for them too.
Sarah: You talk a lot about encouraging your actors to go off script and improv as much as possible. I know Ryan Gosling broke down after shooting the scene in Blue Valentine where he buries the dog. I was wondering what the hardest emotional scene was to film in this movie?
Derek: The whole thing is challenging because I write from a place of vulnerability and personal fear. What I am trying to do in a script is challenge my actors. On Pines I had written 37 drafts and I am so sick of myself. Then I have brave and courageous actors on set because they’re taking this challenge I’m giving them. All I want them to do is make it alive. The challenge for every scene is to not only go in to these emotional places, but make it alive. I am trying to find a place where acting stops and behavior begins. Like the scene of Ryan burying the dog in Blue, his body was so exhausted that it tricked his mind and he broke down crying because he believed he had buried his dog. All I want to do as his friend is shut the camera off, give him a napkin, wipe off his face, and tell him it’s just pretend. But that is what we’re there for, to find these moments. Making a film is a constant series of events like that.
Matt: I know you have called your cast collaborators before and not actors. I was wondering if you could expand on that relationship.
Derek: Well, I never thought Luke (Ryan Gosling) would have a face tattoo. Ryan gave him that. By giving him the ownership of that it effected him. I’ll say I am not a painter because I don’t have all the best ideas myself. I don’t have all the answers. If I did, I would be fine being a painter or even a screenwriter. But I’m not the smartest and most eloquent guy. I think I’m a great coach and have the ability to bring out the best and worst in people, which is good for films like mine. That is why I make films because I need people and really love working with people.
Matt: It’s hard to say the film is about one specific person. I felt this way about Blue Valentine too. Everybody on screen, even if they are there for less than a minute, are given a lot of humanity. I was just wondering if this is something you try to do. Would you say Pines is about a specific person?
Derek: I’d say Pines is jut about people. I agree with you that I try to respect every person in a movie and on the screen. I want everyone to be as true and honest as I can make them. I feel like oftentimes with movies we are bombarded with perfection on the screen. It must be what a teenage girl feels like when they see emaciated models on billboards. As a moviegoer I started to feel really lonely watching these movies and wondering where I fit in. Why is my life not life that? Where do I fit in? Why don’t I talk like that? Why doesn’t my story rap up that way? Instead of being taken by the fantasy, I felt betrayed by the fantasy. I made it my point to try to make movies that were about people who aren’t perfect because i didn’t know anybody who was perfect. I have never met any heroes or villains. I don’t know evildoers. I don’t know black and white, I only know grey. The thing that makes us all special and unique are our flaws. That sets each of us apart from each other and is a beautiful thing. I try to celebrate flaws and humanity in the movies even if it goes to the dark places.
Meagan: You mentioned that Hurricane Irene struck during the production of the movie. I was wondering if that had any effect on the mood of the movie? How soon was it in to filming?
Derek: Oh yeah. It was about six weeks in to filming. I had to move my family out of the house we were living in. It was buried under six feet of water. I had to rescue all my kids stuffed animals. Our film truck was buried under water. We had to row out in a canoe and save the film stock from the truck. It devastated the town. The only positive thing that came from it was a day off from our absolutely relentless schedule.
Matt: I think what you were saying about giving everybody a certain amount of humanity is really powerful because it doesn’t play in to stereotypes that a lot of movies do. This film definitely felt like it was politically conscious as in it was about everyday people or the “working class”. I was wondering what about the everyday man intrigues you?
Derek: That’s the moviegoer. Film was the poor man’s art form. Theater was for the elite, film was for the common person. I was making documentaries for 12 years between Brother Tied (1998) and Blue Valentine. I started making documentaries about ordinary people: the inner city basketball player, the Vietnam veteran biker, the mixed martial artist who wasn’t even on the bill. I started looking at these people and tried to see them in an extraordinary way. I tried to see the regular unseen person and give their life gravity, catharsis and epiphany. Conversely, I was also doing documentaries about famous people like Mos Def, LeBron James, and P Diddy. Anytime I dealt with these people that were deemed extraordinary I tried to see them in an ordinary light. I made P Diddy take off his glasses and his fur coat and put him in a corner of a room. I made him take off the bling just to see who he was as a man. What I’ve been trying to do with my movies is tell stories about ordinary people who wouldn’t necessarily get a movie told about them. The collision that I’m going for is casting movie stars in those roles and have them be warts and all and show their pores. There are politics in the film in terms of dealing with legacy and tribalism in America. When you’re born in to a certain class or side of the railroad tracks it’s very hard to be anything but that. Luke, for instance, is trash and anyone would consider him as trash. How is he going to provide for his son and pay for his college if he earns $100 a week as a mechanic? He’s never going to move past that so he has to make bold, but foolish choices. Conversely, Avery (Bradley Cooper) is born in to a world of privilege and he is expected to assume this mantle of royalty his father has for him. But he wants to be his own man. He doesn’t just want to assume that. There are a lot of people that I know that grew up to very powerful parents and they want to get out of the shadow. Avery wants to be a cop, but by being a cop he works with too much ambition and eagerness. He’s trying to be his own man but he was never meant to be that. Oftentimes self-preservation is rewarded in this country and it’s how the elite stay elite and the poor stay poor.